At Public Projects Forum, "chronic underinvestment" in infrastructure dominates

At Public Projects Forum, "chronic underinvestment" in infrastructure dominates

At Public Projects Forum, "chronic underinvestment" in infrastructure dominates
December 18, 2015

On Dec. 7, City & State hosted a Public Projects Forum, sponsored by WXY Studio, Armand Corporation and D&B Engineers and Architects, convening regional administrators and local leaders in the tri-state area to discuss the major development projects in the works and critique the current processes governing development for the public good. Both discussion panels can be viewed here.

“Chronic underinvestment in infrastructure creates enormous problems in terms of future economic growth, in terms of quality of life, in terms of property values, and in terms of public safety.”

Those were the words of New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, speaking at City & State’s first panel discussion on municipal planning for public projects, where he said that small cities outside of the five boroughs of New York City cannot depend on federal or state dollars when it comes to addressing their needs.

Fort Lee, New Jersey, Mayor Mark Sokolich was also on the panel. The Democrat is perhaps most famous as the person the Bridgegate scheme was meant to punish, because he refused to endorse Gov. Chris Christie’s bid for re-election. But at the forum, he was just another local elected official voicing the many obstacles he faces when trying to redevelop areas of the city.

“When we enter into projects we need to presume that there isn’t help on the horizon,” Sokolich said. “I am not suggesting that there isn’t help that will ultimately come, but we can’t wait for the funding because, notwithstanding assurances to come, we don’t see it in the future.”

While New Rochelle and Fort Lee have unique communities and different needs, it is clear they take a similar approach toward addressing those needs. It starts with asking (or begging) for federal and state money. This is a necessity, even if the exercise comes with no promise of reward. Both mayors say one way to make a better case for government funding is to leverage it with private investment. Bramson and Sokolich say luring businesses to their communities allows them to better advocate for funds for new public projects or improvements.

In New Rochelle, the redevelopment of the downtown area with a new 10 million-square-foot mixed-use project is expected to bring in dozens of new jobs. But the economic windfall comes with larger infrastructure needs, Bramson said, including money for school construction and upgrades to the city’s fire department.

Meanwhile, in Fort Lee, Sokolich is touting long-awaited construction on Redevelopment Area 5 – an area with a checkered history that has been undeveloped for 45 years.

“Harry Helmsley owned it. Leona Helmsley owned it and went to jail, during her ownership of it,” Sokolich said. “There was a mayor 40 years ago, Burt Ross, that went into witness protection over it, and I am not kidding.”

In order to jump-start the project, Fort Lee had to offer developers a PILOT deal, or payment in lieu of taxes. Both Sokolich and Bramson admit that these types of deals can open politicians up to criticism that they are giving businesses tax breaks, but argue that local communities should use this tool if it is in the best interest of their constituents.

“Politically, I am going to take a beating,” Sokolich said, adding that in the case of the Redevelopment Area 5 project, the PILOT payment was a good decision because it has gone undeveloped for so long, and the city is going to get a $12 million theater as part of the plan – something city officials wanted and were able to negotiate into the plan.

“There is a viscerally negative emotional reaction that is associated with tax breaks of any kind,” Bramson said of constituents who hear about large companies getting deals from communities to develop there.

The New Rochelle mayor says it is sometimes necessary to use public money to chase after private money – but only if you can answer two questions.

“Would this project be viable without the incentive? If you prove that the project cannot happen without the incentive, then you check off that box,” he said. “Second question is, does the community still come out ahead even with the incentive granted? If you can check off that box too, then it seems to me to be a good, rational, logical decision.”

Both Bramson and Sokolich agree that more reliable funding from state and federal sources to improve infrastructure would allow them to better attract businesses without providing tax breaks. If those funds can’t be provided, Bramson hopes New York may be able to help mayors in another way. He is strongly advocating for a bill that would amend the current 2 percent tax cap so infrastructure development expenditures would be exempt.


Long-term recovery plans starting to take shape

The second panel at City & State’s Public Projects Forum focused on long-term planning by government agencies centered in New York City. The discussion focused heavily on efforts to rebuild in a more sustainable way in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Here are some of the highlights from the panelists:

Feniosky Peña-Mora, commissioner, New York City Department of Design and Construction

The DDC commissioner said he has been heavily involved in the city’s Build It Back program, which has set a deadline for completing all repairs on Sandy-related claims by the end of 2016.Peña-Mora highlighted the steps the administration has taken to cut through red tape in order to expedite the process and said the city was on track to meet the goal. He also spoke about how the agency has changed its focus toward greater sustainability.

“Sandy provided us a wake-up call,” he said. “It reminded us that we are a coastal city. Sometimes people think, no that is Florida, not New York, but it really showed that we are very vulnerable to flooding.”

Holly Leicht, regional administrator, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

On the federal level, HUD has not been as actively involved in post-Sandy recovery as FEMA, which has provided a huge sum of money to pay for repairs and help the public housing authority rebuild in a more sustainable way. Leicht did say that the agency has tried to provide local communities more direction when dealing with disasters.

“One of the important lessons I have learned looking at other disasters from around the country is that I think there were a lot of unrealistic expectations about how quickly you can stand up a recovery program,” she said. “Nobody knows what to do in a disaster. One of our lessons was that we need to provide more direction to grantees on how to stand up – particularly (with) home recovery and small business recovery programs, because the way it is done now, HUD’s relationship to cities and states is tradPitionally very hands-off. We say here is the money, here are a set of rules, you guys figure out how to spend it. You know best. But what we are finding is that in disasters nobody really knows best.”

Catherine Rinaldi, executive vice president, Metro-North Railroad

Metro-North has also been overhauling its infrastructure after suffering damage during Sandy, including rebuilding substations at a more elevated level and building new signal and power systems that are more resilient.

But the story may have also helped advance a project that had long been in the works: the Penn Station Access Study.

“The clincher in moving it forward was Sandy,” Rinaldi said. “There was a concern to the respect of resiliency.”

Currently, Metro-North terminates at Grand Central, providing access only to the East Side of Manhattan. This project would allow travelers to more easily get to the West Side by building new access points that go to Penn Station.

Rinaldi pointed to a report by the Cuomo administration that came out a few months after Sandy in which the project had been moved to the top of the list to make sure resiliency is accounted for in the process.

“I think that really lit a fire and accelerated things. And then as things came together, from an economic perspective, there were employment centers in the Bronx that were not currently being served by commuter rail,” she said, adding that there is a lot of enthusiasm from Bronx politicians about bringing commuter rail to these developing areas. The state has committed to building four new Metro-North stations in the borough.

Michael Gareth Johnson